While the vast majority of students and staff will be learning online for at least two weeks, Krista MacDonald faces anguish and stress as she walks through the doors of her high school to help students with disabilities in the classroom.
MacDonald, a teaching assistant at Riverside High School in Windsor, Ont., said many students she assists cannot wear masks or follow social distancing protocols. Although she wore layers of personal protective equipment, she said that was not enough to stop her from feeling unsafe.
“This tsunami-like virus affects everyone and it does not exempt us from it,” MacDonald said. “And that’s the most important thing is that they’re urging people to be careful and do whatever you can to stay home, but they’re like, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s without danger for you.
We have a lot to carry on our shoulders and I think stress is difficult for a lot of people.– Krista MacDonald, teaching assistant
“We find ourselves with this anxiety and this guilt of having to be so very, very careful to make sure that we don’t pass it on to our families, and we don’t pass it on to these students. We have a lot on our shoulders and I think stress is difficult for a lot of people.”
MacDonald is one of several staff in a class that teaches and cares for about seven high school students with disabilities. In addition to activities and programs, she said, helping them eat and go to the bathroom are examples of when they may come into contact with bodily fluids.
“To be honest, I feel a little disrespectful. It’s a lack of fairness that we’re putting ourselves at risk and everyone working from the safety of their homes,” MacDonald said. “If it’s not safe for ordinary students, why is it safe for us?”
Mom says in-person lessons for her son are a necessity
For Jen Hennin, the benefits of in-person learning for her son outweigh the risks of COVID-19.
Edwin, 8, has autism and needs help at school. Hennin said his verbal skills are similar to those of a two- or three-year-old.
“It’s a big part of his life and it’s what makes his day interesting,” Hennin said, adding that a solid routine is important for people with autism.
After seeing Edwin’s progress last year during in-person classes, Hennin doesn’t want to see him regress.
“He’s blossomed a lot. We’ve found a big spike in communication.
The family tried virtual school for Edwin for a few weeks at the start of the pandemic, but found it wouldn’t work. He became frustrated and overstimulated, Hennin said.
“He had had enough and he was on the floor, falling apart and started banging his head on our ceramic tile floor. I said, you know what – we’re all done,” said she declared.
Local councils await provincial PPE, filters
The Ontario government recently announced that it will provide N95 masks to school staff and deploy an additional 3,000 high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters.
However, the Greater Essex County District School Board told CBC News those masks from the province have not arrived. In the meantime, the administration has come out and bought the masks themselves. A spokesperson also said all special education classrooms were equipped with HEPA filters.
The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, which is resuming in-person learning for some students with disabilities on Friday, said it has also not received N95 masks from the government and they are expected to arrive this week.
But it’s unclear when the Catholic board will receive those extra HEPA filters or three-ply cloth masks for students, a spokesperson said.
Support staff should get hazard pay, says union rep
The Education Support Staff Unit of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said that while the province feels schools are unsafe and closes doors to most people, then all students and staff “should be treated the same”.
“Anxiety among my members is very high right now,” union president Tyler Campbell said.
It represents approximately 900 members, including teacher assistants, early childhood educators, and child and youth workers.
Since many support staff are required to provide in-person learning, he said they should be on government hazard pay. However, Campbell said that hasn’t happened throughout the pandemic.
In-person teaching education staff should also have access to rapid tests and be prioritized for booster shots, Campbell said.
For MacDonald, she feels stuck in a gray area having to work in person when most aren’t in the education sector.
“We understand the importance of accommodation, but at what risk? MacDonald said.
In the interests of student and staff safety, she said, online learning for students with disabilities is a realistic option. While not ideal, MacDonald recalls that “in spurts it was quite successful” when everyone was online at some point during the pandemic.
“They were engaged, they were laughing. We had visuals, they had visuals at home…and they had iPads with programming.”